“You know, a bunch of years from now, all these people, all these assholes are gonna be writing about all this shit I write. I don’t know where the fuck it comes from. I don’t know what the fuck it’s about. And they’re gonna write about what it’s about. *chuckles*” -Joan Baez recalls a conversation with Bob Dylan in documentary, No Direction Home, by Martin Scorcese
Well, Bob, you got me. I’m the asshole, neither of us knows what the fuck your songs are about, but here I am writing about it all the same.
In the humble opinion of this music lover, Bob Dylan is the single greatest singer-songwriter, and maybe artist period, that the western world has produced over the last century. His work is some of the most influential to ever grace popular music and without his monumentally creative stretch of work in the 60’s the Beach Boys would’ve never made Pet Sounds, the Beatles wouldn’t have become Sgt. Pepper’s, and popular music as we now know it would look very, very different. Dylan is a true genius and, although one has to wonder how true some of his claims about his writing process were, it seems to me that Dylan’s ability is in no small part thanks to some measure of divine providence. With the release of Rough and Rowdy Ways last year, Dylan has put out a top-40 charting record in each of the last 7 decades, consecutively. In 2016 his writing earned him the Nobel prize for literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” and, in true Bob Dylan fashion, he declined the invitation to the banquet. Dylan was many things, but oftentimes with figures of his stature, we tend to forget that, for all his greatness, at his core, Bob Dylan is nothing more than a human being.
Over the course of his legendary career, Dylan put out towering works of music and poetry, works of socio-political protest, and blended genres in ways that advanced the writing and instrumentation of popular music. Today’s pick for the Musical Training Plan is considered, by many, to be Dylan’s best and among the greatest albums ever released; a status earned for none of those reasons. Released in 1975 after a career lull, Blood on the Tracks does something that few pieces of art have ever been able to do: it shows us the raw humanity of the great artistic icon responsible for it.
Bob’s youngest child, Jakob (an accomplished singer-songwriter in his own right) described the album’s lyrics as “My parents fighting”, a shocking description, but considering the pair’s divorce 2 years after the album’s release, probably an accurate one. Dylan himself would deny that the album’s tension and grief come from anywhere in his personal life, but even if he believes that, it’s hard to hear Blood on the Tracks as anything but a pseudo-breakup album. It is the closest that Dylan ever came to confessional songwriting and, if we are to believe him, he didn’t even mean to confess anything. The lyrical content of Blood on the Tracks is much more personal, intimate, and emotional than his previous work. He is as concerned with Love and Loss as he has ever been and these subjects really shine in the album’s opener, and one of the finest tracks that Dylan ever penned, “Tangled Up in Blue”
Blood on the Tracks‘s first song makes an impression and sucks the listener into Dylan’s songscape terrifically. A story about a man’s life and his relationship with a woman over many years sung over rich, quickly flowing guitar chords serves as a microcosm of the album at large. Dylan’s writing is ambiguous, the way he plays with tense and time is far more complex than the ear will catch on first listen. Is the woman in the bar the same as the woman from the first verse? Are the verses actually sung out of order? Who is Dylan singing about dealing with slaves, and why? As he will do many times throughout the album, Dylan intentionally sings right at the edge of his vocal limit causing his voice to lose stability and come closer to a yell than his usual croon. The desperation in his voice in the high parts of “Simple Twist of Fate” mirrors the desperation and instability in his own life at the time of writing. By pushing himself physically, Dylan’s voice unlocks an emotional depth fitting that of his verse. Coupled with the simple, acoustic, string-heavy instrumentation Dylan creates a complete musical experience.
The focus, as always, is on Dylan’s Nobel Prize-winning lyrics, but the balance between voice and guitar is much more even than can be found in many of his great early works like Freewheelin. The space between foreground and background is thin and at times Dylan seems to be swept up in the swaying current of his guitars, more at their mercy than in command of them. Certain songs are colored by different instruments like the harmonica in “You’re a Big Girl Now” and the keyboard in “Idiot Wind”. Subtle changes and varied usage of different instruments allow each song to feel its own without any of the album’s 10 tracks feeling misplaced. This perfect balance between sonic consistency and variety coupled with the emotional and thematic coherency make Blood on the Tracks feel the most complete of any album Dylan has ever released. It isn’t a fraction as grand or revolutionary as some of his other works, but for 51 flawless minutes Dylan pours himself out in a magnificent display of music and emotion, and I can’t get enough of it.
I wish I was comfortable writing much, much more on this album, but I don’t think I can. It is a work that needs to be listened to over and over to be fully appreciated, and one whose poetry will likely strike everybody differently. I just know that I love this album’s tones, words, and feelings more than nearly any other album and that it was high time I tackled a Dylan album again. Do yourself a favor and sit down with Blood on the Tracks sometime over the course of the next week. Lend it your attention and see what it has to say to you. Whatever Bob thinks it means, if he thinks it means anything at all, is of little consequence. What I think of it doesn’t matter. Nothing that anything thinks about this album matters.
All that matters is the experience.